Cruising down Portugal’s A1 Auto Estrada, I took the exit for the Forest of Buçaco, a nature preserve that was walled in by Carmelite monks 400 years ago. An hour later I was standing in a grassy clearing, surrounded by an ancient grove of cork oaks gazing at the Atlantic Ocean.
I was on my way to the Dão, a wine region in central Portugal that, though little known to most Americans, produces some of the finest reds on the Iberian peninsula. Like the Forest of Buçaco, the Dão is a secretive place whose charms, from stylish pousadas to medieval villages, must be sought out to be savored. Even the river it’s named after is so elusive you can drive past it without noticing.
Porto to Coimbra, Portugal (90 miles)
My first stop after Buçaco was the ancient university town of Coimbra. The core of the city occupies a promontory crowned by two cathedrals—one Romanesque and fortresslike, the other grand and Baroque—and a university that’s among the oldest in Europe. Cobblestoned streets and alleys drop precipitously down to a district lined with hotels, shops, and sidewalk cafés, many of them in creamy Belle Époque buildings. At dinner that night at A Portuguesa, a casual waterside restaurant overlooking the placid Mondego River, I feasted on cataplana, a traditional fish stew that’s cooked in a special copper pan.
On the other side of the river is the Quinta das Lágrimas (Villa of Tears), which takes its name from the macabre legend of Prince Pedro and his mistress Inês de Castro. In 1355, she was murdered on its grounds by assassins in the employ of Pedro’s father, the king. When Pedro himself took the throne, he is said to have exhumed her corpse and forced his courtiers to kiss her desiccated hand.
Now a hotel, the ocher-colored mansion looks across to the upper town, a citadel whose white walls and red-tile roofs are characteristically Portuguese. But the cult of the ill-fated lovers is everywhere. Downstairs at the Michelin-starred Arcadas da Capela, I was even offered Pedro & Inês wines, a red and a white. Each is a blend of two varietals, the waiter explained—one is powerful and “masculine,” the other graceful and “feminine.” I had the white with a tangy goat-cheese ravioli. But I was still troubled by that hand.
Coimbra to Vila Pouca da Beira, Portugal (47 miles)
Beyond Coimbra lies the Dão itself, an upland plateau shielded by mountain ranges. This is a verdant region of two-lane roads that wind through piney woods and fields dotted with little hamlets. In tiny Lourosa, I stopped to see the 10th-century church of São Pedro, its unadorned stone walls a reminder of just how dark the Dark Ages must have been. A mile south at Vila Pouca da Beira—a relative metropolis of 400—I checked in to the 18th-century Convento do Desagravo, a pousada that combines the minimalist and the Baroque: vast expanses of whitewashed plaster interrupted by polychromed saints in ecstasy. I sat on the hotel’s terrace overlooking the Serra da Estrela, Portugal’s most forbidding mountain range, drinking a Quinta da Bica, a supple red from a nearby village. Tomorrow, I would hit the vineyards.
Vila Pouca da Beira to Viseu, Portugal (43 miles)
After a 45-minute drive on back roads, I pulled into the town of Carregal do Sal. I was looking for the Quinta de Cabriz, headquarters of Dão Sul, one of the leading wine producers in the region. What I found, under a stand of pines at the edge of town, was its restaurant—an unpretentious place where I had grilled spare ribs, crisp fries, and a glass of Casa de Santar, a red from a nearby village.
Santar was just a half hour away, so I headed there after lunch and discovered one of the most beautiful villages in the Dão, with stone-and-stucco houses on narrow lanes and Baroque villas hiding behind high gates. The Casa de Santar itself is a long, white manor house with its back to the street. A sign said it was open, but the gates were closed, so I inquired at a nearby shop. Cecilia Monteiro, the young proprietress, locked up the store and led me into the gardens, a terraced fantasia of topiary and boxwood parterres and roses in full flower.
Monteiro urged me to visit another estate: the Paço dos Cunhas de Santar, recently transformed by Dão Sul into a showcase of enoturismo. So I drove to Viseu, the center of the Dão wine industry, dropped my bags at the dramatically restored Pousada de Viseu, and set off to look for it. There, in a starkly elegant room with rustic stone walls, chef Henrique Ferreira served the most memorable meal of my trip: grilled duck breast with passion fruit and a sweet goat cheese custard flecked with orange and mint. The restaurant may have been hidden, but the flavors were extravagant. It was a combination I was starting to find familiar.
Frank Rose is the author of The Art of Immersion, now available in paperback from Norton.